Iceland 2012

Type: hiking

Start: Skogar

End Rafarhofn

Length: 20 days, ~500km

Dates: June–July 2012


In the summer of 2012, six team members set out to complete a hiking expedition across Iceland, from the south to the north. The trek would incorporate the magnificent laugevegur hiking trail, followed by the harsh highlands, the Jökulsá á Fjöllum canyon and finally the coastline of the Melrakkaslétta peninsula by Öxarfjör›ur. Our plane set off on the 25th of June, arriving in the midnight twilight. Views of the Reykjanes peninsula showed a desolate and unfamiliar landscape with volcanic cones and the odd plume of steam.

We slept in the airport car park and began hitch hiking to the start point Skógar the next day. We managed to get lifts and were all deposited in various parts of the Reykjavik outskirts, although our exact location eluded us. Camping gas was easily found and purchased, but attempting to hitch a lift beside a motorway turned out to be fairly unproductive. Eventually we all managed by various means to find our way to the ring road of Iceland. Now the race was on. Each pair would have to use all of their hitch hiking prowess in order to claim the victory of reaching the start point first. In the end the first two groups had cheated by taking buses part of the way, and the final pair turned up much later after a tourist without a word of English took them via the ‘scenic route’. That evening we camped just upstream from the Skógarfoss waterfall.

Days 1–5. Skógar – Landmannalaugar

The first day consisted of a 1000m climb up to the Fimmvörðuháls pass between Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, mostly following the river. We were exhausted by the time we had reached the top, but the mountain hut was full, so we continued to follow a set of posts through snowfields and lava fields fresh from the 2010 eruption. We climbed to the top of a peak and rested on the hot rocks. There were vents in the ground spewing chlorine gas and precipitating sulphur, and only a small amount of digging (and burnt boots) gave temperatures hot enough to toast marshmallows on walking poles. Lava toasting requires great skill to generate the desired caramelisation. Once over the highest point of the pass we gave up walking the ice fields and slid down them, then pitched camp on a ridge with magnificent views: ice and steam on one side volcanos and sunset on the other.

On day 2 we began the descent to Skógar. Disaster struck when my rucksack rolled off the path when I set it down and it fell down the side of a steep valley, scattering its contents on the way. The rucksack was now slightly broken but still usable. We completed the descent to Þórsmörk, where there was a large river we needed to cross. We inadvertently walked past the bridge and attempted to ford further downstream. However, finding a tributary to be at our limit, we were forced to walk back to the mountain hut. The warden, after some bartering, agreed to offer membership price and so we spent the night in the comfort of the mountain hut.

The next day began with a walk up a sheltered gorge which was home to one of the few forests in Iceland. The lack of trees in Iceland is apparently mainly due to deforestation and erosion following the settlement rather than the harsh conditions. Only birch and willow species occur in Iceland. The forest also had a variety of other plants.

After emerging from the forest we walked to beyond the next hut, a day which included magnificent views of a glacier and ended in an expanse of black sand, a taster for the Sprenginsandur of the middle section. The following day we made good progress almost reaching the hut normally used for the third night after Þórsmörk. This included a few river crossings and a steep climb to what may well have been the most magnificent view of the whole trip. There were also vents here spewing hot water and noxious gas.

We then had to traverse an exposed ridge. This demonstrated perhaps best the absurdity of the capricious Icelandic climate: blasted by scalding steam and pungent gas, while heads were bowed against the vicious hail, and all this while the sun was still shining! That night we camped in freezing cold conditions near the highest point of the whole trip, over 1000m altitude.

On day 5 we began the descent to Landmannalauger, which went past one of the best vents we had seen thus far. At one point one of my walking poles became rather bent after an ice bridge collapsed underneath me. The walk also included a view of a lava field before Landmannalauger, which looked strangely out of place with the rest of the scenery.

When we arrived in Landmannalauger the weather was miserable, but we had the consolation of being able to soak in the hot springs. Duck parasites be damned, we were going in! Then came the task of restocking food for the next 10 days. The “mountain mall” turned out to be the back of a van, and the shopkeepers seemed bemused to see us spending about an hour in there arguing about calories per weight before buying their entire supply of pasta, smash, oats and tins of fish. Lunch now consisted of a packet of cookies and a mars bar a day.

Days 6–9 Landmannalaugar – Nyidalur

The walk from Landmannalaugar was along gravel road and we made encouraging progress despite leaving late. That night we camped near a hydrothermal power station by a river with suspiciously blue water. This did not seem to put off Harlequin ducks, one of the few Icelandic species not found in Britain.

The following 3 days were the most challenging of the whole trip. Now that the terrain was flat and we were walking on gravel roads, the distances covered in each day were much greater, and the blistering started in earnest. Added to this, our meagre supplies meant that we were very hungry, and passed the time talking about food. The walk took us onto the f26 Sprenginsandur road. This is the highland road that connects north and south Iceland between the Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers and passes through a barren desert of volcanic ash. The route is famous because it has no horse food for long distances so that the horses would have to be ridden almost to death to cross quickly enough. We passed along the shores of Lake Þórisvatn, the largest lake in Iceland. On day 9 we walked our longest day thus far so that we could spend a night near the mountain hut at Nyidalur. A short climb early in the day revealed a view of the Hofsjökull icecap to the left and the edge of the Vatnajökull icecap on the right, and between the daunting expanse of the Sprenginsandur stretching as far as the eye could see. The Sprenginsandur was not totally barren however. A few flowering plants were found in reasonable abundance. These were not Sprenginsandur specialists, but were rather found throughout Iceland.

When we arrived at the hut we were exhausted, but persuaded the owner to let us use the hut facilities while camping. The kitchen had a leftover shelf which we duly emptied, and the next day we discussed our route with the rangers at the hut.

Days 10–15. Nyidalur – Reykjahlíð

Reluctant to leave the comfort of the hut we left late the following day, turning off the f26 soon after. A highlight was crossing a river via an ice bridge. The following day we found a small hot spring in which we could bathe our feet for a while. The area around the hot spring was a haven for some plants not found elsewhere in the Sprenginsandur.

The hot springs were the point at which we turned off the roads altogether and took a jeep track which had been recommended to us by a ranger at the hut. This was not on our map and turned out to basically be a set of tyre tracks which was very hard to follow and often seemed to go in several directions where drivers had taken detours. The track took us alongside a lava flow from the nearby shield volcano Trölladyngja. Shield volcanoes are produced by runny, basaltic melt, and make a contrast with the rhyolitic obsidian and pumice and steep cinder cones of higher silica melt seen a few days earlier. The scenery was a refreshing change from the Sprenginsandur proper with picturesque streams and fairly lush vegetation.

We eventually gave up on the jeep tracks and cut across the lava field at a narrow point, crossed a large stream and cut across open country to a track that would take us up the eastern side of the Skjálfandafljót River to the Mývatn lake. The track led up a hill and we pitched camp on day 12 in a cloud. The descent the following day led to the river valley. We were coming to the end of a long period without seeing any other humans and we seemed to be entering civilisation again. There were sheep grazing in the tundra of the valley bottom and there was a locked jeep hut. The vegetation here showed the curious mixture of the arctic and the European found in Iceland, including the national flower of Iceland Dryas octopetalata, an Arctic and alpine species which gave the Younger Dryas cold period of c. 12000 years ago. There were also many wading birds such as curlews giving warning calls as we passed near their nest sites.

Day 13 was also the day when the wind changed and began to come from the north. The wind was strong and freezing cold, showing why a crossing of Iceland is more commonly walked north to south. The day ended at the spectacular Aldeyjarfoss waterfall where we pitched camp. This campsite was the main competitor of day two for being the most spectacular.

The waterfall was framed by basalt pillars, with twisted and jumbled pillars above the regular columns as seen at Fingal ’s Cave in the Hebrides, a pattern that would become familiar later on. Our path down the river valley had led us out of the highlands and now plants and insects were relatively abundant on the banks of streams and surrounding areas.

Following Aldeyjarfoss we were back on gravel roads and walked through tundra in fine conditions. Towards the end of the day we climbed a hill and could see Lake Myvatn in front of us. We camped not far from the lake and walked to the ring road the following morning. To avoid the busy road we hitched a short lift around the lake to the town of Reykjahlíð. The lake was picturesque with many islands in the form of pseudocraters. These are formed when lava flows over a wet surface creating steam which explodes through the lava. At the town we ate food until we could no longer move and also restocked for the final leg of the journey. We camped a few kilometres outside the town. Unfortunately the only stream for a while was foamy, filled with sheep’s wool, suspiciously not very cold and appeared to come from a nearby power station. Purifying tablets were therefore necessary.

Days 16–20. Reykjahlíð – Raufarhöfn

We walked east along a bridle path, then turned north on a gravel road that would bring us to the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. We briefly increased our speed by introducing a hiking form of Cambridge bumps. However the rule of kicking the person in front after a bump turned out to be inconvenient. When we reached our designated campsite there was no stream to be found. There was however a massive road of which we could find no evidence of on the map. The GPS assured us that there had been no catastrophic navigation errors so we walked a few more kilometres to the edge of the main river, within earshot of the Dettifoss waterfall. The water in the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River was hardly ideal for consumption as it contained so much sediment, but we had no choice. The next day the strong north wind kicked up the volcanic ash, and a dust devil narrowly missed the campsite. Our attempts to leave water to settle had failed and there was now dust floating on top. The porridge for the morning was particularly delightful (and mineral rich) as we could not see the bottom of the pan of water and burnt smash from the night before detached and floated to the top. In face of the dust we goggled up and walked to Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Being bored with the days of sun we got soaked in the spray at the viewpoint.

We made slow progress walking along a path the wound around the bottom of the canyon. It had a number of waterfalls occurring in steps which seemed to reflect the geology. Layers of structureless ash deposits alternated with columns and twisted pillars above. Each layer of columns produced a waterfall, a pattern imitated in the steps on the side of the canyon. The twisted pillars seemed to be very hard in places and produced magnificent spires.

On day 18 we walked a long distance to make up for the previous day. After emerging from the canyon we crossed a road bridge and made rapid progress on tarmac roads. Our fitness had now improved and the going was not as difficult as it had been earlier. Late in the day we reached the sea. After hand feeding some Near the very north, we found Iceland’s most pointless sign Icelandic horses we finished the day at a lough but once again we found that this had dried out. We did not know where the next water would be as we were entering a short section of the peninsula for which we had no map so we had to be content with a stagnant seaside pool with the odd washed up dead eider duck.

In the morning walk to Kopasker we found an abundance of fresh streams just 10 minutes walk from where we camped. We stopped in Kopasker for a while for that most surprising of Icelandic services: free showers and hot water. The town really was the back of beyond. The only entertainment seemed to a “golf course” in the tiny town square with 18 lines of slightly less rough vegetation in a tangle of weeds.

The birdlife on the peninsula was spectacular for its abundance. Birds such as great northern divers, which would be considered an event to see at home, were crammed into every water body. It was also notable for its violence. Arctic terns were constantly mobbing us for this section. We ended the day in a position that would allow us to reach the northern tip early the next day.

The final day saw our wars with the arctic terns reach a climax. The Arctic terns were defensive for good reason. The juveniles turned out to be easy to catch, as they flew clumsily and often crash landed near us. We decided to turn this into a game: a point for each juvenile caught, and a point lost for each peck!

At the northernmost point, Rifstangi there was little aside from a derelict farmhouse. We stopped for lunch then returned to the road in the hope of hitching a lift out. After a couple of hours without success we decided to walk to Raufarhöfn. This therefore ended up being our longest day, over 40km in total, and we arrived at Raufarhöfn after midnight.

Over the next few days we hitch hiked back to Reykjavik, stopping at the capital of the north Akureyri, where we relaxed in the geothermal swimming pools, and Akranes. We were told that the latter town had an Irish festival a few days before as it had been founded by two Irish brothers. Our lift from Akranes to Reykjavik was with a nice Icelandic bird. However I had to throw a blanket over it half way through as it annoyed the driver by continually squawking and flying around its cage.

The campsite at Reykjavic was a great place to meet random people. One Londoner who had given us a lift joined in our barbeque (which included some excellent salted horse) and showed us the art of constructing a penny can stove. There was a sizable audience at the end, one American insightfully remarking that “He must be some kind of cool chemistry teacher”. The Reykjavik campsite also had an abundance of the bee Bombus hypnorum which is currently spreading throughout the UK and was first recorded in Iceland in 2008. Judging from its abundance, it had spread quickly and had now become one of the most common bees in the Reykjavik area, although was not seen elsewhere in Iceland.

Our last night in Reykjavic was spent sampling various interesting but ethically questionable meats (Minke whale, Puffin, Caribou pate, Guillemot, Monkfish, Lobster…) and arguing politics with an assortment of Americans from the campsite until the early hours. The next morning I made a brief visit to the natural history museum. Here they had live specimens of marimo balls, a type of algal growth occurring only in Myvatn and three other lakes in Estonia, Japan and Scotland, where specific conditions of low light and currents are correct. Finally, we flew back to Edinburgh, visited a chip shop (twice) and enjoyed our first tent free accommodation for a month.